YOU may have heard noises, the bin going over or a fight in the bushes. But just what things visit your garden at night? Matt Westcott joins the growing army of nature lovers who are capturing nocturnal wildlife on camera.

CAT, cat, cat, magpie, cat, cat, wife.

That was the sum total of what lay in store for me when I inspected the camera trap on the first morning after it was installed.

If nothing else it proved that I have far more cats in my garden than I thought and that my wife likes to hang the washing out very early indeed.

Once the preserve of the professional wildlife watcher, camera traps - which use motion sensors to take photographs of otherwise shy and retiring creatures - are becoming cheaper and therefore more accessible to the amateur nature lover.

If like me, you believed such contraptions were a modern invention, you would be wrong. The first photo attributed to the process was actually taken by George Shiras in 1890 and was of some very startled deer.

That involved a huge amount of equipment and no end of good fortune, and while the latter remains true to this day, modern technology comes in forms little bigger than the palm of your hand.

“It was in the 70s, 80s and 1990s, when technology became more compact, that scientists and engineers began to look at how they could remotely monitor animals and how they could prove their worth as a conservation tool,” said James McConnell of NatureSpy, which is based in North Yorkshire and specialises in camera trap rental, set-up, and advice.

Ironically, the widespread use of camera traps for conservation today owes much to hunting.

“In America they are known as scouting cameras and are strapped up to see if there is anything worth hunting,” said James.

I was certainly hunting something, but rather than wanting to put its lifeless head on my wall, I was seeking to highlight just what animals inhabit our suburban patches.

With a wildlife friendly garden, I can guarantee a large variety of birds during the day, but I was somewhat in the dark, so to speak, as to what occurs when they disappear off to their roosts at night.

After looking around for the most suitable spots to strap the camera to, I put it in place and went to bed as excited as a child on Christmas Eve. In fact, it took all of my will-power to stop from getting up in the middle of the night and going outside to take a look.

Although James warned not to expect instant results - “You can only really judge it a success if you capture a wild animal on it, and because they are wild, you can never really be sure that they will turn up” - the first night at least proved I had switched the machinery on.

While what I found might not have attracted the attentions of David Attenborough, it demonstrated that my garden is a hive of activity when I close the curtains. At least five cats sat bold as brass on my bird table eating that night’s leftovers. Interspersed was a magpie and a herring gull and finally several shots of the missus in her dressing gown.

The next night, I strapped the camera to a tree at the side of my shed and took James’ advice when it came to what to put on the menu.

“I always recommend peanut butter, largely because it stinks and if it stinks to us it will stink to a lot of other things which are guided by their noses, especially mammals such as hedgehogs and foxes,” he said.

Lo and behold, the next morning images of one of Mrs Tiggywinkle’s prickly descendants were contained therein.

The clarity wasn’t great, but the shape was unarguable and they served to whet my appetite for the nights ahead.

But if you get nothing from your first outing, James urges perseverance.

“It might not work for everyone on the first night,” said James. “But when it is warm and the air is still the aroma should spread beyond the garden. Animals have very sensitive noses, so they should pick it up. If something does come in or pass by your garden it might pick up the scent and draw it closer to the camera.”

For the following two weeks, me and the hedgehog - I am presuming it was the same one - became quite close, posing as it did for a series of photographs each evening, once even interacting with a passing cat. I didn’t manage anything more exotic, sadly, but James said the results were still important nonetheless.

“There are mammal groups and recorders and it certainly is useful to submit your sightings,” he said. “The North-East has a data centre in Newcastle called ERIC or the Environmental Records Information Centre, and they accept all mammal records, especially if you have pictures.

“There are also loads of places on the internet to submit your sightings. They will then collate them all and send them off. They can be used to build pictures of what has been spotted. Hedgehogs are of particular interest because look like they are in decline at the moment, so if more people get these cameras and report sightings that is great.

“The main thing about these cameras is that they bring the wildlife to the people. They make them your animals. It is your fox or your hedgehog in your garden, rather than one you have seen on TV, and that can only be good for you and for wildlife generally.”

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